NOTE: I am not saying these are the best pickups, I am saying that these are a few that ended a lot of long searches for me and stuff I really enjoy using. Also note that this list will be updated from time to time.
NOTE 2: Before researching active pickups, you will want to make sure the guitar you are considering putting them into will support them. The main thing is will the battery fit nicely inside the control panel? If not, you will need to think about how bad you want actives as some routing that can’t be undone would need to be done to fit a battery compartment. This is not an easy DIY move as it requires proper skill and equipment.
Please read our intro to the pickup quick guides HERE if you want some of the basics before jumping in. The info in the quick guide also explains the difference between passive and active pickups.
Active pickups came around in the ’70s but for a while, EMG was more of a studio / session guitarist’s pickup. Producers then started recommending the pickups to metal guitarists and they spread like wildfire. They changed the game in metal by providing a cleaner and always consistent signal. You could put an EMG 81 in literally anything and have it work out on some level.
In time, Seymour Duncan hit the market with their Blackout line and more recently Fishman hit the market like a tsunami. Both of these product lines saw a lot of players, including myself immediately jump from EMG to the new kid on the block. I have always returned to EMG for a number of reasons and I’m not alone but you can find many strong active options on the market.
EMG 57 / 66 set – This set can do anything from the most beautiful, warm cleans to being a god damn bulldozer for hi-gain. They are definitely the warmest EMGs I have ever used by a considerable margin and I would recommend this set to anyone switching over from passives for the first time. The Alnico magnets really shine bright in this pickup set.
The 66 is a gorgeous and powerfully warm (how many times have I said warm. warrmmmmmm) neck pickup. In the original 81 / 85 set, I always hated the 85 because when you’d kick on a clean tone, it sounded dry and pretty well cold as ice. The 60 is cool but the the 66 is cooler.
The HUGE surprise for me, came when I used them for stoner / doom tones. Instantly, this set became possibly one of my favorites ever and easily the most impressed that I have ever been in an EMG set. I didn’t think this level of warmth and smoothness was possible with active pickups but even at high gain, these Alnico based pickups responded so incredibly well to fuzz and muff tones. I am in love on this one. With a pedal change and one knob adjustment, I was in death metal heaven, a couple more tweaks and boom; a wall of hard rock. Versatility scores points. The EMG 58 neck pickup is also supposedly to be incredible for doom, we will try it in time.
Pickup height has a lot to do with how this set responds which is something different for me give that in the past, the 81 just needed to be put razor close to the strings. That formula doesn’t work for this set. I needed to experiment with pickup height slowly to get things where I wanted. Once I found the right height, I settled right in.
This set is flat out the most versatile EMG set for me and then some. In my personal opinion, the 57 / 66 set is the best set EMG has to offer on a number of levels and I am happy to recommend it for a lot of things I may not have recommended EMGs or actives for in the past. I am sold.
EMG 81 / 81X – If you are into metal, there’s a 100% chance that you have heard the EMG 81 on a whole hell of a lot of albums. This was the pickup when I was a teenager because at one point or another 90% of thrash metal used the 81 in the bridge. It’s two trick pony and it’s not the warmest pickup but good lord is it good at literally any type of metal.
It’s an iconic pickup and EMG does have a few variations of it so if you have gotten a little bored of the standard 81 sound, try the 81x or the other versions in the signature sets available. I highly recommend the various versions of this amazing pickup for anyone playing anything from mid to extreme hi-gain.
EMG Het Set – I stored a few of a friend’s guitars while he was living abroad with the OK to play them to my heart’s content. One such guitar had a het set in it and when I tried it, it was during my Fishman experimentation period. This set brought me back home to the warm embrace of EMG.
After installing a set into one of my own guitars I’d say the bridge plays a lot like a warmer-punchier and almost more passive version of the 81 that James played for decades. The neck is warm and great for cleans but I didn’t like it as much for leads. I was instantly sold on the bridge when I tried my friend’s guitar but when I put them in my own, it was a different story. It took me quite some time to find the proper pickup height for these and then a while longer to get used to their unique response but once I did, they became quite the tool. While fairly limited in applications, it’s a great set!
EMG GTV Glenn Tipton Set – Another set in a guitar from my old friend’s guitar collection. This time, these ones were in a complete piece of crap of a guitar. After spending a weekend doing a set up and fret leveling (with his permission), it gave me time to appreciate how much this set absolutely rips. The bridge pickup is close to an 81 but with a bit more bite to my ears. The picking response also seemed a bit punchier than a standard 81. The neck is also an 81 which isn’t common place but a few guys have made this sound pretty popular. The neck 81 has loads of attack and cut at really any amount of gain.
I did a lot of tracking with this $200 guitar with the GTV set in it and I was actually the most sorry to see it go when he eventually returned home months later. It really speaks to the company’s ability to create products that sound good in almost anything as well as showing what a nice set of pups can do for your tone, even with a cheaper guitar.
Fishman Fluence Modern Devin Townsend – I have tried three sets of the Fishman Fluence Modern pickups and for the most part I found I just couldn’t get tones I was overly fond of until I tried the Devin Townsend signature set. When he moved to Fishman to work with them on a signature set of pickups with a more passive feel to the Fishman 2nd voicing and loads of versatility, he had my full attention.
I got the set and had a lot of fun with them, the bridge pickup is monstrous and the ability to choose between two voicings gives the user the ability to really dial in a number of tones from the guitar alone before it even gets to the gear. Fishman uses a “Tele style” split coil feature The neck pickup is also fantastic between the two voicings Smooth, soaring leads with sustain for days. The set is truly remarkable but it’s the only thing in the Fishman line that gave me what I was hoping for and more.
I think Fishman would be really smart to offer the Stephen Carpenter line in a 6 string set. It’s definitely a set that I have heard great things about in extended range form and I know they did sets of 6-string prototypes so why not? In the meantime, I’ll recommend the Dev set any time to any style of player!
Seymour Duncan Gus G – They look like a passive set but these are the signature active pickups designed for Firewind and former Ozzy guitarist; Gus G. I really don’t like the grey graphics on these, I feel like the graphics on this set might turn people away a little bit, especially those like me that like their pickups to match/blend into the guitar. The set comes with this badass preamp that isn’t overly complex to install and provides brilliant tone for anything from rock to death metal. I found these were a little better tuned in E or D standard, when I have heard them in B, they didn’t have the same tightness but I could be wrong.
When I had a chance to have a rip with the set, I was pleasantly surprised at both the lead and rhythm tones that were attainable with the them. The pickups really do sound like a passive set most of the time which was the goal for this set. Gus used an SD Distortion in the bridge and ’59 in the neck for years so his active set was very much based around variations those pickups. This is another set I would recommend for passive players making the jump to actives if you want to feel a little at home. It’s great for mid to hi-gain that’s for sure.
EMG T-Set – Installing an active set in a Fender Telecaster or Telecaster style guitar with the traditional control route is not an easy task. The only ways that I have found to install a 9v battery in a Tele are to cut a chunk out for a battery pack, remove the tone knob or cut out a section under the pickguard. In a single pickup or esquire type wiring scenario it’s easier because there’s no switch. Some of these are permanent, some limit the instrument’s tons a bit. You’ll need to decide.
This set is phenomenal and probably the most balanced of the EMG Telecaster offerings. It offers country players the twang and/or muscular bottom end they need for vintage and modern variations of their craft. Rock Tele players get all the warmth and subtly cutting nature of a traditional Telecaster set with a bit of an enhanced response. I really enjoy having them in a mix along side a passive set for a couple different elements.
As far as I know there are no active P90 pickups but EMG does have a line of P90 sized options for their 81, 85, 60 and 60A pickups. These are made to fit the EMG flagship lines into guitars with P90 routes to avoid further routing. Also known as the P90 sized humbucker. I believe EMG are the only ones doing active P90 sized humbuckers at this time. See them HERE
The Humcutter series from Railhammer isn’t active but it’s worth mentioning here because they deliver a truly remarkable hum-free P90 tone which could be what you are after if you are looking into active P90 options in the first place. They are humbucker sized P90s and they truly are impressive. No battery needed and these pickups cover a lot of ground while staying pretty quiet and not sacrificing a whole lot of the P90 sound.
In closing, I can see how our involvement with EMG and the fact that there’s only one Fishman product on this list might look a little odd but I can assure everyone that I spent over $700 on Fishman when they started the Fluence line and found nothing I really cared for. I tried again when the Devin Townsend line came out but ultimately, passives won me back. It’s not for lack of trying, I just couldn’t get a sound I wanted but I would still recommend people try Fishman if they are curious because many players love them. I just know the 57/66 set from EMG re-ignited my love for and confidence in active pickups.
My opinions are always going to be 110% honest no matter who our sponsors are. I have put a ton of hours in with all of the above products and I will stand by any product I enjoy regardless of the name on it. Good tone always wins.
This list will be updated often so please do bookmark and check back for more options in the future. If we forgot a pickup you believe we should consider, please do let us know, let’s discuss!